State of Grace

I’m either none or all of the following: Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Pagan, and all the other religions on the planet.   I don’t have much time for religious dogma, though I think the teachings and stories from all faiths contain wisdom and insight.   The idea that an omnipotent being would only give paradise to those who happen to believe a particular set of stories seems a bit absurd.   In fact, as I noted last year, I think those “exclusivist” religions will overtime learn to accept that it makes no sense to say that the faith which happened to develop in  their part of the world is the one and only true one, with all the others wrong.

Yet, I do believe in God.   I don’t know for sure what the term means.   Is God simply “all there is,” and I’m a segment or a piece of perspective in a pantheistic universe?   Is God simply a part of my consciousness that connects it at a deep level to all of reality, linking me to the eternal?   Is it something like the “force” in Star Wars?  I suspect anthropomorphizing God into a human and giving God gender, human traits and (in the case of Judaism and Christianity) even human vices (God is jealous, God is angry) is way off base.    Most likely, God is a human concept that represents an aspect of reality that is beyond our comprehension.   We glimpse it and try to make sense of it in our various myths and religions:  God is love, God is a universal force, God provides a culture its sense of meaning, etc.

So I believe in God, don’t know what God is, but feel a sense of connection to a spiritual side of the world in which material divisions are somehow irrelevant.   Time, distance, space…that doesn’t matter, all is one at that level.

That all may sound nice, but the next question is WHY do I believe in this “God?”   Religions at least have their holy books and rituals.   You get taught from youth to believe, or you are brought into a community which helps you find meaning for life.   My view is very individualized, I’m determining what kind of God I believe in, I’m not buying someone else’s set of beliefs.   I am considering many teachings and beliefs to help guide my own personal effort, to be sure.  I also know that my belief is my “best guess,” not something I consider to be unquestionably true — and that’s good enough for me.

One reason that I don’t accept a ‘pre-packaged’ faith is that on a question of this import, I’m not going to leave my beliefs up to others to determine.   I’m not going to believe something out of fear or going to hell, or because of pre-existing institutions.  In fact, the more I study religions, the more clear it is that dogmas develop over time and due to human conflicts, not timeless commands from above.   It’s my life, I’ll determine what I believe!

The second reason is fundamental:  It works for me.  I live life in two ways.   Sometimes I’m involved in a hectic pace of preparing for classes, getting tasks done, taking care of the kids, worrying about finances, trying to find time to exercise, reading about politics, engaging ideas in blogs or by grading papers, and having a laugh at the end of the day watching Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.   Days pile on each other, little things bother me more easily, I get bored, I worry more, and I realize that time is slipping away.

Other times I am, in a sense, “in a state of grace.”  I do this by imagining God as a part of me, with me, every step of the way.  This “God” is both within me and outside me.   It’s like a voice assuring me that things happen for a reason, even the horrible things I can’t understand, and helping me avoid stress, see humor in tiny things, and enjoy each moment without being weighted down by expectations of the future, irritations of the present, or nostalgia for the past.   I enjoy life, feel awake, connected to the world at a deeper level, and good things seem to happen.   Instead of chance coincidences now and then, synchronicity starts to define my life.  I look for reasons why I’ve drawn things to me, lessons I can learn, ways I can enrich my experience of life.    I feel a strong sense of joy — I enjoy life.

The social scientist/rational skeptic in me smiles and thinks, “it’s just a psychological thing.  I’m engaged in a kind of auto-hypnosis whereby I’m altering my own mood by feeding myself suggestions about how to take things and how to respond.  There is no real connection or higher power, just my own mind learning how to deal with the stresses and demands of the modern world.   That’s not bad — it’s a good skill to have — but “God?”  A “state of grace”?   Nah, I’ve just learned to modify my own attitude.

That may be true .   Life may feel magical because I’m choosing to look at life through that lens.   When I do that I don’t get angry at a car that cuts me off, I laugh when my three year old spills milk on my papers, and shrug when my retirement account loses tens of thousands in a market downturn.   When I’m outside that state, I’ll honk at the obnoxious jerk who cut me off, raise my voice to my child for being so careless, and obsess about finances when I have a loss.  Since the former experience is more pleasurable than the latter, I’ll go with it even if my thoughts about God and spirituality might be a fantasy.

Yet, I don’t think I’m simply deluding myself.  I feel a sense of serenity when I allow myself to be in a state of grace.   It becomes easy to forgive others, easier to keep my temper, and can better accept it when things go wrong.  There seems to be more understanding and strength, as if I’m tapping into something beyond me — or perhaps a part of myself from which I disconnect when I lose this state.   It’s not that I won’t get angry, or write something a bit too provocative, or get irritated.  It’s not that only good things happen.   Yet inside of me I feel I am more myself, more complete when I’m in this state.

This “state of grace” is a perspective — to feel like I am where I am because somehow I chose to be here for the lessons I can learn, or the people I can help (or be helped by).   It’s the belief that I need to make the most of every moment, that each moment has purpose, and is precious.   I best maintain this and reinforce/strengthen this perspective through what Christians might call prayer — an ongoing dialogue with my conception of God, a spiritual force which connects me to everything else.   At times I imagine responses, at times it’s a monologue.  At times I just try to feel the connections.  But the more I practice doing this, the easier and more natural it seems, and the more life seems to be a joy rather than a series of burdens or anxious moments.

  1. #1 by henitsirk on November 21, 2009 - 04:27

    Sounds a lot like what Christians might consider you allowing the Holy Spirit into your heart. But whatever it is, it sounds wonderful (full of wonder) and marvelous (a marvel). Hold onto it!

  2. #2 by renaissanceguy on November 21, 2009 - 14:24

    Interesting. I mean that sincerely.

    One thing that I want to suggest is that you cannot really belong to all those religions you listed. Otherwise you would have to simultaneously believe in many gods (Hindusim and some forms of Paganism), one transcendent and imminent god (Judaism), one abolutely transcendent god (Islam), one trinitarian god (Christianity), no god (Buddhism), and two opposing gods (Zoroastrianism). That just doesn’t work.

    I had two college professors who would say it. I always wanted to ask them if the monotheist inside them ever argued with the polytheist or the pantheist inside them. I never had the guts.

    You wrote, “. . .though I think the teachings and stories from all faiths contain wisdom and insight.”

    Me too, although I am a convinced Christian. I would say it this way: all truth is God’s truth, no matter what the immediate source of that truth is. All religion teach that on should treat others kindly. That’s true no matter who is saying it.

    “. . .who happen to believe a particular set of stories seems a bit absurd. . .”

    Actually, you are misrepresenting most of the religions here. It is not about believing stories, but about accepting facts. Judaism (the Orthodox and Conservative branches, anyway) believe that it is a fact that God revealed Himelf to Moses on Mt. Sinai and made them into a holy nation of people. Muslims believe that it is a fact the material in the Quran was revealed to Muhammad and that he is Allah’s prophet. Christians believe that it is a fact that Jesus rose from the dead. So it is not so much a matter of believing stories as it is accepting certain claims as facts (or not).

    [Of course, if one operates from the premise that religious stories are all merely allegories or analogies, then I would agree that it would be a wicked god who would punish people for not believing a particular story.]

    If there is a God, in the sense that most religionists mean it, then surely he would want people to know and accept the truth about him and about other things as well. Don’t you think? If Krishna and Shiva are gods, then I don’t think that they would appreciate somebody saying that Jehoveh is the only God. Nor would Allah appreciate somebody’s asserting that he does not exist, if he actually does.

    “I suspect anthropomorphizing God into a human and giving God gender, human traits and (in the case of Judaism and Christianity) even human vices (God is jealous, God is angry) is way off base.”

    Ah, but in Christian and Jewish theology, it’s not that people anthopomorphized God, it’s that God used anthropomorhic terms and images to enable us to understand the otherwise incomprehensible. If God is above and beyond human beings, how else could we undestand him but to have him compare himself to us?

    Educated Christians and Jews do not believe that God has gender. They believe that he is usually described in masculine terms to teach certain principles. And on occasion he is described in female terms, as when Jesus said that he wanted to gather his children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wing.

    You mentioned two vices–anger and jealousy. I think it is morally sound to be angry over certain things, such as murder and theft. Don’t you? Righteous anger is not a vice; in fact, it’s a virtue. The jealousy that God expresses in the Bible is toward false gods with the implication, I think, that God desires us to believe what is true and right rather than what is false and wrong. In other words his jealousy is motivated by what is good for us, in the same way that a certain type of jealousy over my wife shows my love for her. I don’t want her to turn to another man who will not love her as I do.

    “One reason that I don’t accept a ‘pre-packaged’ faith is that on a question of this import, I’m not going to leave my beliefs up to others to determine.”

    I think that there’s a good side to that and a bad side. The good side is obvious: you should think for yourself. The bad side is that if you don’t listen to what others before you have said about God, you cut yourself off from a vast body of wisdom and knowledge. It would be like saying that you want to make up your own mind about the mating habits of gorillas or about the geography of India without listening to what anyone else has to say about those topics, even people who might have firsthand knowledge of the subject.

    I don’t know if you care at all about my opinion, but I would guess that your “state of grace” is indeed a time of connection with God. I’m happy that you have it, and I hope it deepens and expands. Although I believe in the exclusive claims of Jesus Christ, I do not believe that he does not work in certain ways in everyone’s life–whether those people trust in Him or not.

    • #3 by Scott Erb on November 22, 2009 - 02:36

      I actually don’t think righteous anger is a virtue. I would not expect a “God” to be angry about murder, but rather disappointed and having to discipline/teach the murderer much like a parent has to discipline/teach a child (preferably without anger). I also DO listen to what others have written. I read a lot of material from religious texts and various theologians. I simply make my final determination on my beliefs myself, based on what I take from what I read (and what seems right to my conscience/heart).

      About facts…I guess I would say we have beliefs about the world, and we call facts those which have been verified to us to the point that we have at least subjective certainty (we feel certain) that they are true. In science you have only contingent facts, since all scientific knowledge can theoretically be overturned with new evidence and better theories. All my beliefs are contingent in that way — I’m not truly certain of anything, since I am willing to re-assess all beliefs if challenged by new evidence or new ideas. However, that which I hold true in my conscience I will act upon as if certain, since I have to take a stand in the world. As for faith — I put ethics and principle first, that seems to me to be more important than whether I think Jesus died on the cross or Muhammad moved a mountain.

      I like paradoxes, so I sort of like Hinduisms polytheism that is really a monotheism that is really a pantheism. Hindus have multiple Gods, but there is really only one — but since no human idea of God can capture it, one can posit numerous ‘aspects’ of this God, or “Gods.” And at some level, we may all be part of this God.

      I think your final paragraph seems very wise.

  3. #4 by henitsirk on November 21, 2009 - 17:52

    RG, interesting that you said we “believe” in “facts”, not “know” them. I’m not picking on you, RG, I’m noticing something that I think we all do — “facts” are not as cut-and-dried as we think. I’ve edited a lot of atheist books recently, and they all assert quite clearly that religious beliefs are not facts as defined by the scientific method. Of course I immediately question the validity of the use of the scientific method in all contexts, but it’s a widely agreed-upon way of winnowing fact from hypothesis (or belief).

    About God’s jealousy and anger: as you pointed out, Christian thought generally states that God uses anthropomorphized language so that we can understand him. I think this extends to these so-called vices. However my interpretation of scripture is that those vices were for the edification of the Hebrews, and that with the gospels God no longer has need to interact with us in that way. (Jesus occasionally acted with righteous anger, as in the scourging of the Temple, but overall it’s absent in the New Testament.) I like to think that humanity advanced spiritually, so that we now can understand the lessons of love as opposed to the more concrete laws of the OT. (And I’ll say right away that I’m not saying modern Jews are less advanced than Christians; this is a more general view of humanity over long periods of time, an evolution of consciousness, if you will.)

    This kind of thing is what interests me about Christianity, that it has a clear progression over time to new doctrine and teachings. I’m not sure I see that in most other major religions.

    I’ve been pondering the concept of God as a father a lot lately. It makes sense to me in terms of how a father relates to his children: setting boundaries but forgiving when they are trespasses (while still providing consequences), modeling the desired behavior, etc. Maybe I’m just anthropomorphizing an ineffable, unknowable spiritual being, but it works for me and my little brain.

    Scott, you said:
    I feel a sense of serenity when I allow myself to be in a state of grace. It becomes easy to forgive others, easier to keep my temper, and can better accept it when things go wrong. There seems to be more understanding and strength, as if I’m tapping into something beyond me — or perhaps a part of myself from which I disconnect when I lose this state. It’s not that I won’t get angry, or write something a bit too provocative, or get irritated. It’s not that only good things happen. Yet inside of me I feel I am more myself, more complete when I’m in this state.

    Sounds a bit like the Buddhist goal of letting your lower self get out of the way, of connecting with the All. Not quite no-self, but perhaps *less* self, in the sense of the earth-bound, temporal self that creates a veil between our daily consciousness and higher consciousness. (And of course this exists in Christianity too, though it’s not often described this way, as in “Not I, but Christ in me”.

    • #5 by Scott Erb on November 22, 2009 - 02:39

      Interesting — the Facebook quiz tells me I’m Buddhist 🙂 Atheism is an interesting belief. They often claim they simply “lack a belief” in God, but in reality they tend to be anti-theists, which suggests to me they’ve made a leap of faith themselves. The scientific method never proves facts, but gives us reason to hold some beliefs over others. Yet anything non-material and unfalsifiable is outside science — and thus I think science has to stay “agnostic” on such claims.

  4. #6 by renaissanceguy on November 21, 2009 - 18:33

    Henitsirk, I realized right after I wrote the part about believing in facts that I had done so. The “fact” is that we all have to believe in facts. We cannot know anything absolutely, when you think about it. We have to believe in certain things to even begin to “know” anything.

    For example, in order for me to “know” that Queen Elizabeth I actually existed, I have to believe in the evidence presented to me. I have to believe that the writings left by her are genuine. I have to believe that the writings about her are not stories made up by people about a fictitious person. I have to believe that the paintings made of her are not dreamed up in the artists’ imaginations.

    It is impossible to know absolutely that Jesus rose from the dead. However, orthodox Christians do believe it, and they believe it as a fact, not just as a story. They believe that there is evidence to support its factuality.

    I agree with Scott that a good God would not condemn somebody simply because they chose the wrong story to believe in. It seems to me, however, that God would condemn people for rejecting evidence of his existence and of whatever is true about him. He would not do so out of pettiness, though. He would do so out of concern for people–that they know and understand the truth and operate according to it. He would do it to be able to lavish his love on them. He would do it to help them live in harmony with himself and with each other and with the world around them.

    • #7 by Scott Erb on November 22, 2009 - 02:42

      Good response, RG. I think at a more fundamental level, to operate in the world we need to hold a series of beliefs. That’s directly from cognitive psychology — we all have our cognitive maps, schemas, and ways of organizing the sensory and intellectual data we perceive. They’ve done experiments where Mexican and American boys are given a stereovision device having one side with a bull fight, the other a baseball game. The Americans all see the baseball game, the Mexicans the bullfight. The brain simply ignores what doesn’t fit with its pre-existing set of understandings. We go through life that way, interpreting reality through the lens of our beliefs and experiences. That should give us all a bit of humility, I think!

  5. #8 by henitsirk on November 22, 2009 - 03:13

    The other funny thing about all these scientists’ atheistic books is that they make a leap from “this hasn’t been proven with science” to “therefore it’s impossible”. As if, as Scott pointed out, science isn’t contingent. I know Thomas Kuhn has a few detractors, but he did make a good point: scientific paradigms change, drastically, and therefore “facts” change too.

    The sad thing to me about some of these atheists I’ve read is that they just shut out all nonrational experience. And the funny thing is, no one can point to any physical process or material substance and say, “That’s where consciousness comes from.”

    RG, yes, we do have to at some point accept things as “facts”. I’m always reminded when thinking of this topic of a favorite Friends episode:

    Ross: You don’t believe in evolution?

    Phoebe: I don’t know, it’s just, you know…monkeys, Darwin, you know, it’s a, it’s a nice story, I just think it’s a little too easy.

    Ross: Too easy? Too…. The process of every living thing on this planet evolving over millions of years from single-celled organisms is… is too easy?

    Phoebe: Yeah, I just don’t buy it.

    Ross: Uh, excuse me. Evolution is not for you to buy, Phoebe. Evolution is scientific fact, like, like, like the air we breathe, like gravity.

    Phoebe: Oh, okay, don’t get me started on gravity!

    Ross: You, uh…you don’t believe in gravity?

    Phoebe: Well, it’s not so much that you know, like I don’t believe in it, you know, it’s just…I don’t know, lately I get the feeling that I’m not so much being pulled down as I am being pushed.

    [There’s a knock at the door]

    Chandler: Uh-Oh. It’s Isaac Newton, and he’s pissed.

  6. #9 by Josh on November 22, 2009 - 03:52

    Interesting comments. As a pure mathematician, I’m glad I don’t need to have my ideas correspond with physical reality. If I want pigs to fly in my world, by golly they will! And I can prove it, too!

    Sigh…it must be tough for those boring old natural scientists. Reality is sooo boring. 🙂

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